These two issues comprise the penultimate episode in the Red Skull’s most recent campaign against Captain America, which began in issue #290. The first issue is mostly the Red Skull recounting his origin story to Cap, whose reactions and responses are of more interest to us, and the battle itself starts in the second (culminating in issue #300).
In issue #298, after an establishing shot of the villain’s castle on page one, we get the following double-page spread, with the Red Skull, sans masque, taunting Cap while setting up his own sordid tale. (If it’s too small to read on your device, you can click to embiggen.)
But first, the Skull clears the room, including his daughter Mother Superior, Baron Zemo, and Nomad (dressed in Bucky’s uniform for Zemo’s failed plot in the last issue), who initially tries to resist until he acknowledges Cap’s own calm acceptance of the situation. As he leads the Sentinel of Liberty away, the Skull can’t resist a dig at his penchant for taking on young sidekicks (something a certain caped crusader could stand to hear as well).
The Skull continues to taunt Cap, pointing out their shared beginnings as weak youths…
…but Cap’s isn’t biting, which the Skull admires (as he does many of Cap’s other traits, as we saw in the last issue)…
…until the Skull raises his hand to strike him (after insulting both Cap’s friends and colleagues, as well as his own reasons for working with them).
Finally, the Skull prepares to tell his story and previews its theme, which is basically “we are not so different after all.”
The Skull tells the tale of a destitute and angry young German named Johann Shmidt who found his life’s purpose after meeting Adolf Hitler. The Führer took Shmidt under his wing and trained him to be the perfect Nazi, who eventually adopted the identity and appearance of the Red Skull.
Despite all his “achievements,” however, the Skull had never met a worthy foe… until he met a man who would come to mean as much to him as Hitler did if not more. (I’ll bet Cap got a chill when he heard that.)
The Skull goes on to tell how he was kept alive after the war in suspended animation like Cap, rising in the 1960s to face him once again, with the ongoing personal “battle of equals” taking precedence over any dreams of fascist conquest.
He explains how he came to have a child with a servant in his household, and although disgusted with the daughter she gave birth to, he decided to train her to be his successor, psychically feeding her the experiences that crafted him and prematurely aging her to adulthood. But he could not account for her fatal “flaw”… which she overhears for herself, before he insults Baron Zemo as well before announcing he has given up on having an heir and now only wants his “opposite number” to die with him.
Having finished his story, the Skull expects and wants rage, but only receives sympathy and grace (much as Cap showed Mother Superior in issue #296), for which he once again expresses admiration and respect, before retiring to launch the next step of his plan.
As issue #299 begins, Cap’s friends—Nomad, Falcon, his fiancee Bernie, and his childhood friend Arnie—search for a way out of the castle, while Cap searches for them after the Skull made his threat. As he explores the Skull’s lovely home, Cap reflects on his newfound sympathy for the devil, while at the same time being reminded of the atrocities inflicted on the world by the Skull and his fellow Nazis… one of whom he passes without knowing it.
Gee, that seems like something you don’t just leave lying around…
Cap finds himself starting to defeat before resisting the thought, while acknowledging the Skull’s devious brilliance this time around.
The door leads to a bunker where the Skull waits for him; Cap rushes him and demands to know where his friends are, but to no avail. Instead, the Skull taunts him a little more, relishing in how he hurt each of Cap’s friends, before revealing his and Cap’s shared fate…
…consistent with the theme of “two opposites in eternal battle” underlying Skull’s autobiography in issue #298. Despite its poetry, however, Cap does not accept the Skull’s vision of their mutual demise.
The Skull practically begs Cap to let loose and fight him man-to-man, but Cap refuses, maintaining the same principles Skull admired earlier.
So the Skull ups the stakes to give Cap a reason to fight… but for once his plan comes up short because of the perseverance and spirit that Cap’s friends share with him.
As things finally start looking up for hero, the issue takes a brief detour, first to the bedside of Dave Cox, an early victim of the Skull’s machinations who, like Cap, could not be forced to betray his principles (as we saw in issue #294).
Then our focus turns to Black Crow, the Navajo with a much stronger claim to be Captain America’s mirror image than does the Red Skull, as we saw in issue #292, and who seems to receive a vision of both of them during what could be their final battle.
We also see the Avengers planning an assault on Red Skull’s home before Cap’s captive friends are attacked by the Sisters of Sin (who, as we learned in the Skull’s grand soliloquy, were originally playmates of the Skull’s daughter before he aged them and gave them the powers that we saw in issue #295). Cap watches the fight alongside the Skull, who mocks their persistence before Cap turns the mockery on him.
Suddenly, Mother Superior and Zemo burst into the room where Cap’s friends and the Sisters of Sin are fighting, the former killing the latter and then swearing to do the same to her father. (If we don’t know of a Greek tragedy mirroring this, we just haven’t discovered it yet!)
Of course, Cap can’t resist pointing out the results of the Skull’s actions to him, but the Skull simply doesn’t care, and remains focused on the epic storyline he sees the two of them sharing.
Frustrated, the Skull takes the next step…
…which elicits an understandably complex and confusing mix of reactions from our hero, including shock, sadness, and rage, as well as vengeance, which is hardly noble but reasonable under the circumstances.
Yes, don’t miss it (although you’ll only have a wait a week at the most)!
Captain America (vol. 1) #299, November 1984: J.M. DeMatteis (writer), Paul Neary (pencils), Roy Richardson (inks), Julianna Ferriter (colors), Diana Albers (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in: Captain America: Death of the Red Skull
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #297 (September 1984)
NEXT ISSUE: Captain America #300 (December 1984)